Check Please! Government Picks Up Tab, Starts Caring about Triple Bottom Line

There is a lot of controversy over the Health Care Bill. Although agreement on how to deal with the state of health care is lacking, many Americans agree that there are issues that need to be corrected. As Canadian conservative commentator David Frum argues, “The U.S. health care system costs too much, delivers too little and excludes too many.” He isn’t off the mark. In fact, Americans typically pay 60 percent more per person for health care than any other nation, yet we rank only 41st in life expectancy. Many people live with the fear that if they lose their job, they lose their health care coverage. The aim of this article is to shed some light on a couple pieces of the bill that are green and seemingly good.

In a December 2009 article, Treehugger writer Lloyd Alter mentioned that in places where universal health care coverage is available, like Canada, the benefit of the government paying the bills is that it gets really concerned about the health of its citizens. The result of this concern comes in the form of junk food bans in schools, smoking prohibited almost everywhere and the removal of taxes on bikes. There is certainly something to be said for a focus on health education and prevention given a recent report that nearly 1 of every 5 dollars spent on health care in the U.S. will be attributable to obesity-related conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure.

We are finally starting to see a shift, albeit small, towards sustainability within the health care system and parts of this bill could result in a dramatic impact on other concerns, including the environment. Unfortunately, things like increased pesticide use on plants, unsustainable agricultural activities, mercury contamination in seafood, water pollution and air pollution impose negative social, environmental and economic externalities. The good news is that they can all be corrected. The awareness brought about from the health care debate could spur a movement towards creating a healthier citizenry and the lowering of health care costs by replacing policies that have historically gone in the other direction.

In the American bill, for instance, there is a 10 percent tax on tanning salons. Skin care experts compare it to a tax on cigarettes, which acts as a disincentive to a dangerous practice. Other parts of the bill include a section that creates a grant program for state, local and tribal health departments to implement and evaluate community prevention initiatives to reduce chronic disease rates, address health disparities and develop stronger prevention programs. A focus on prevention, as detailed in Section 4001 of the proposed bill, would mean the establishment of the National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council within Health and Human Services department. Section 4205 details better food labeling and requires fast food restaurants to visibly publish caloric intake amounts on menus for customers to see.

With obesity quickly becoming an epidemic in America, a number of states having already adopted taxes on sodas and sugary foods. The Health Care Bill, however, doesn’t have such a provision namely because the powerful beverage lobby argued that it would adversely affect poor people and would not change consumer behavior. Michael Pollan, author of The Government Makes You Fat, offers an interesting perspective on government policies and obesity. He states that the reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow. If the government has to start paying the health care bill, it may encourage farmers to grow leafy green vegetables instead.

Although the act itself has a lot of problems, it is likely to provide real incentives (some through disincentives) for Americans to improve their eating and exercise habits and will also force the government to deal with issues like obesity, air quality, water quality and other things that cause illness and death. These “sustainable” aspects of the bill highlight what were previously considered externalities, but might not be any longer.

Cory Vanderpool joined EnOcean Alliance as the Business Development Director for North America. Prior to this role, she was Executive Director of GreenLink Alliance, a non profit organization dedicated to promoting energy conservation in buildings and tax incentives for building owners. Before establishing GreenLink, Cory worked in business development supporting a government contracting firm focused on civilian and defense markets. In addition to her work at EnOcean, Cory is also pursuing her PhD in Environmental Policy at George Mason University and is a part-time contributing writer at Triple Pundit.